In 1953, comic Red Skelton – a fan of Carson's sketch comedy show, Carson's Cellar, which ran from 1951 to 1953 on KNXT – asked Carson to join his show as a writer. During one episode, Skelton knocked himself unconscious an hour before his show went on the air; Carson filled in for him.
Carson hosted several TV shows before The Tonight Show, including the game show Earn Your Vacation (1954), the variety show The Johnny Carson Show (1955–1956), a regular panelist gig on the first version of To Tell The Truth until 1962 and a five-year stint on the game show Who Do You Trust? (1957–1962), during which Carson met long-time sidekick Ed McMahon.
In 1960, Carson was a candidate to play TV writer "Rob Petrie" in a sitcom by Carl Reiner entitled, Head of the Family. Carl Reiner starred in the pilot, but it was decided someone else should play the part. At the suggestion of producer Sheldon Leonard, Dick Van Dyke was given the role and the series was retitled The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Most the later shows began with music and the announcement "Heeeeeere's Johnny!", followed by a brief monologue by Carson. This was often followed by comedy sketches, interviews, and music. Carson's trademark was a phantom golf swing at the end of his monologues, aimed stage left where the Tonight Show Band was. Guest hosts sometimes parodied that gesture. Bob Newhart rolled an imaginary bowling ball toward the audience.
Paul Anka wrote the theme song ("Johnny's Theme"), a reworking of his "Toot Sweet" given lyrics, renamed "It's Really Love," and recorded by Annette Funicello in 1959. Anka gave Carson co-authorship and they split the royalties for three decades.
The show was originally produced in New York City, with occasional stints in California. It was not live in its early years, although during the 1970s, NBC fed the live taping from Burbank to New York via satellite for editing (see below). The program had been done "live on tape" (uninterrupted unless a problem occurred) since the Jack Paar days. In May 1972 the show moved from New York to Burbank, California. Carson often joked about "beautiful downtown Burbank" and referred to "beautiful downtown Bakersfield," which prompted Mayor Mary K. Shell to chide Carson and invite him to her city to see improvements made during the early 1980s.
After the move, Carson stopped doing shows five days a week. Instead, on Monday nights there was a guest host, leaving Carson to do the other four each week. Shows were taped in Burbank at 5:30pm (8:30 pm Eastern time) to be shown that evening at 11:30pm Eastern time. On September 8, 1980, at Carson's request, the show cut its 90-minute format to 60 minutes; Tom Snyder's Tomorrow added a half hour to fill the vacant time. Joan Rivers became the "permanent" guest host from September 1983 until 1986, when she was fired for accepting a competing show on the Fox without consulting Carson. The Tonight Show returned to using guest hosts, including comic George Carlin. Jay Leno then became the exclusive guest in fall 1987. Leno stated that although other guest hosts upped their fees, he kept his low, assuring himself the show. Eventually, Monday night was for Leno, Tuesday for the Best of Carson, rebroadcasts usually of a year earlier but occasionally from the 1970s.
Carson had a talent for quick quips to deal with problems. If the opening monologue fared poorly, the band would start playing "Tea for Two" and Carson danced, to laughs from the studio audience. Alternately, Carson might pull the boom mike close to his face and announce "Attention K-Mart shoppers!"
Carson's show was the launch for many performers, notably comedians. Many got their break on the show, and it was an achievement to get Carson to laugh and be called to the guest chair. Carson was successor to The Ed Sullivan Show as a showcase for all kinds of talent, as well as continuing Vaudeville variety-show.
In 1973, Carson had a run-in with psychic Uri Geller. Carson, a magician, wanted a neutral demonstration of Geller's abilities, so, at the advice of his friend and fellow magician James Randi, he gave Geller spoons and asked him to bend them with his psychic powers. Geller proved unable, and his appearance on The Tonight Show has been regarded as Geller's fall from glory.
Carson successfully sued a manufacturer of portable toilets who wanted to call his product "Here's Johnny".
On December 13, 1976, comedian Don Rickles was a guest when comedian Bob Newhart guest-hosted. While poking fun at Newhart and improvising an "immigration" bit, Rickles stamped an imaginary passport, slamming the cigarette box Carson kept on his desk and breaking it. When Carson returned next night and discovered this, he took a camera crew to the studio next door where CPO Sharkey, a sitcom starring Rickles, was being taped. Carson barged into the studio, shouting, "RICKLES!" He disrupted the taping, berating the embarrassed Rickles with a barrage of insults, in imitation of Rickles's act. Carson also teased CPO Sharkey's African-American actor Harrison Page by speaking to him in an exaggerated southern dialect. The entire incident appeared to be spontaneous, but comedy writer Mark Evanier published an opinion: "Carson's show was taped in Studio 1 at NBC Burbank. The Rickles sitcom was in Studio 3, where Leno now tapes... While Johnny did his best to make it all look spontaneous and unarranged, it had to have been carefully planned. Rickles probably was not in on it and may have been genuinely surprised, but Johnny's producers and director must have been prepared for what transpired, and the producers of CPO Sharkey almost certainly knew. At the moment Johnny entered, Don just 'happened' to be shooting on the set closest to that door. The surprise wouldn't have worked as well if they'd been on one of the other sets. It wouldn't have worked at all if they'd been between scenes or taping a portion of the show that Rickles wasn't in."
An oft-repeated story—since dismissed as an "urban legend"—involved a guest appearance by Zsa Zsa Gabor carrying a white Persian cat. Gabor is said to have asked Johnny if he would like to "pet my pussy?" During a 1989 appearance, Jane Fonda noted that her son had repeated the claim, and "my son said that you said, uh, 'I'd love to, if you'd remove that damned cat!' Is it true?" Carson denied the episode on-air saying, "No, I think I would recall that..." He and Gabor both responded to researchers stating the event "never happened." Despite widespread insistence by people who claim to have seen the episode, no audio or video has ever been produced.
However, a bit of adult humor was not beyond Carson. During an interview with Dolly Parton, in reference to her large bust, she said, "People are always asking if they're real and .... I'll tell you what, these are mine." Carson replied, "I have certain guidelines on this show. But I would give about a year's pay to peek under there."
In a 1980 Rolling Stone article, Carson caused quite a public backlash when he called the Brian Wilson penned (Beach Boys) song "Johnny Carson" (from 1977's Love You LP) "not a work of art". Wilson wrote the song tribute citing the fact no such song had existed previously about the 'king of late night'.
Carson made several routine jokes at the expense of other celebrities, like Wayne Newton (after Newton had performed on Carson's show several times). Newton claimed in his 1991 autobiography, among other times including a 1989 interview with Phil Donahue, that the circumstances led to a confrontation in Carson's dressing room where Newton threatened a physical altercation if Carson didn't cease the barrage of jokes with homosexual connotations. In a November 29, 2007 interview on Larry King Live, Wayne Newton said, "I'm going to say something I've never said on television, Mr. King. Johnny Carson was a mean-spirited human being. And there are people that he has hurt that people will never know about. And for some reason at some point, he decided to turn that kind of negative attention toward me. And I refused to have it."
At the same time, however, satellite earth stations owned by private individuals began to appear, and some managed to find the live feed. Satellite dish owners began to document their sightings in technical journals, giving viewers knowledge of things they were not meant to see. Carson and his production staff grew concerned about this, and pressured NBC into ceasing the satellite transmissions of the live taping in the early 1980s. The satellite link was replaced by microwave landline transmission until the show's editing facilities were finally moved to Burbank.
Joanne recently discovered 39 episodes of the debut season of the "The Johnny Carson Show" which were originally telecast in 1955 and 1956. She recently made an arrangement with the Shout Factory to produce and distribute selected programs on DVD. The two-disk DVD set contains Johnny's "top 10" episodes. Johnny's first wife Joan and the couple's three sons appear in the first episode on the DVD.
Carson was close friends with astronomer Carl Sagan, who often appeared on The Tonight Show to give presentations on astronomy. (Carson himself was an amateur astronomer). The unique way Sagan had of saying certain words, like "billions" of galaxies, would lead to Carson ribbing his friend, imitating his voice and saying "BILL-ions and BILL-ions", a phrase soon erroneously attributed to Sagan himself. According to Sagan's biographer, Keay Davidson, Carson was the first person to contact Sagan's wife with condolences when the scientist died in 1996. Also a talented amateur drummer, Carson was shown on a segment of 60 Minutes practicing at home on a drum set given to him by close friend jazz legend Buddy Rich who was the most frequent jazz musician to appear on The Tonight Show. Writer Gore Vidal, another frequent "Tonight Show" guest and personal friend, writes about Carson's personality in his 2006 memoirs.
Carson's son from his first marriage, Richard, was killed on June 21, 1991, when his car plunged down a steep embankment along a paved service road off Highway 1 near Cayucos, a small town north of San Luis Obispo. Apparently, Richard had been taking photographs when the accident occurred. Carson was deeply shaken by his son's death. On his first show after Ricky's death, he gave a stirring tribute in the final minutes of his show as samples of his son's photographic work (and images of Ricky, himself) were displayed with the music accompaniment of "Riviera Paradise" by blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan (himself the victim of an accidental death less than one year earlier). In addition, the final image--as well as some "More To Come" bumpers--of Carson's last show in May 1992 featured a photo Richard had taken.
He had a Mercedez-Benz with the license plate "360GUY".
And so it has come to this: I, uh... am one of the lucky people in the world; I found something I always wanted to do, and I have enjoyed every single minute of it. I want to thank the gentlemen who've shared this stage with me for thirty years, Mr. Ed McMahon... Mr. Doc Severinsen... and... you people watching, I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you—and I hope when I find something that I want to do, and I think you would like, and come back, that you'll be as gracious in inviting me into your home as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night.|Johnny Carson's closing words on his final show, May 22, 1992 | medium=TV-Show | publisher=NBC | quotewidth=30px | quoteheight=30px
At the end of his final Tonight Show appearance, Carson indicated that he might, if so inspired, return with a new project, but instead chose to go into full retirement, rarely giving interviews and declining to participate in NBC's 75th Anniversary celebrations. He made the occasional cameo appearance, most notably voicing himself on an episode of The Simpsons ("Krusty Gets Kancelled"). Carson also appeared in the 1993 NBC Special Bob Hope: The First 90 Years. Carson's most famous post-retirement appearance came on Letterman's late-night CBS talk show, The Late Show with David Letterman, on May 13, 1994. During a week of shows from Los Angeles, Letterman was having Larry "Bud" Melman (Calvert DeForest) deliver his "Top Ten Lists" under the guise that a famous personality would be delivering the list instead. On the last show of the week, Letterman indicated that Carson would be delivering the list. Instead, DeForest delivered the list, insulted the audience (in keeping with the gag), and walked off to polite applause. Letterman then indicated that the card he was given did not have the proper list on it and asked that the "real" list be brought out. On that cue, the real Johnny Carson emerged from behind the curtain, an appearance which prompted a standing ovation from the audience. Carson then requested to sit behind Letterman's desk; Letterman obliged.
Just days before Carson's death, it was revealed that the retired "King of Late Night" still kept up with current events and late-night TV, and that he occasionally sent jokes to Letterman. Letterman would then use these jokes in the monologue of his show, which Carson got "a big kick out of" according to Worldwide Pants, Inc. Senior Vice-President Peter Lassally, who formerly produced both men's programs also claimed that Carson had always believed Letterman, not Leno, to be his "rightful successor". Letterman frequently employs some of Carson's trademark bits on his show, including "Carnac" (with band leader Paul Shaffer as Carnac), "Stump the Band," and the "Week in Review."
In November 2004, Carson announced a $5.3 million gift to the University of Nebraska Foundation to support the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts' Department of Theatre Arts, which created the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film. Another $5 million donation was announced by the estate of Carson to the University of Nebraska following his death. Carson also donated to causes in his hometown of Norfolk, including the Carson Cancer Center at Faith Regional Health Services, The Elkhorn Valley Museum, and the Johnny Carson Theater at Norfolk Senior High School.
On March 19, 1999, Carson, 73, suffered a severe heart attack at his home in Malibu, California. Carson was sleeping when he suddenly awoke with severe chest pains. He was rushed to a hospital in nearby Santa Monica where he underwent quadruple-bypass surgery.
At 6:50 AM PST on January 23, 2005, Carson, died at Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, of respiratory arrest arising from emphysema. He was 79 years old. Carson had revealed his illness to the public in September 2002. Following Carson's death his body was cremated, and the ashes were given to his wife. In accordance with his family's wishes, no public memorial service was held. There were countless tributes paid to Carson upon his death, including a statement by President George W. Bush, all recognizing the deep and enduring affection held for him.
Tributes published after his death confirmed that he had been a chain-smoker. While The Tonight Show was broadcast live, he would frequently smoke cigarettes on the air; it was reported that Carson had said "these things are killing me" as far back as the 1970s.
On January 24, 2005, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno paid tribute to Carson with guests Ed McMahon, Bob Newhart, Don Rickles, Drew Carey and K.D. Lang. Letterman followed suit on January 31 with former Tonight Show executive producer Peter Lassally and bandleader Doc Severinsen. During the beginning of this show, Letterman said that for 30 years no matter what was going on in the world, no matter whether people had a good or bad day, they wanted to end the day by being "tucked in by Johnny." Letterman also told his viewers that the monologue he had just given had consisted entirely of jokes sent to him by Carson in the last few months of his life. Doc Severinsen ended the Letterman show that night by playing one of Carson's two favorite songs, "Here's that Rainy Day" (the other was "I'll Be Seeing You"). It had been reported over the decades of Carson's fame that he was, off-camera, so intensely private that he had never once invited McMahon to his home. After Carson's death, though, McMahon disputed those rumors and claimed that a close friendship existed.
Many other talk show hosts came and went during Carson's 30 years. A week or so after the tributes, Dennis Miller was on the Tonight Show and told Jay Leno about the first time he tried to do a talk show, and how miserably it went. He said that he got a call right after the first show, from Carson, telling him, "It's not as easy as it looks, is it, kid?"
I loved you, Johnny. We all did.
Yes, I'm rambling because I just don't know what else to say. I will miss Johnny Carson like no other person in my life. He was such a good man, one of my minor gods, and a good friend that I regret to say I did not meet again in person after he left TV so long ago. Just one small example, if I may, of how generous he was. When I called and asked him if he might place a telephone call to Martin Gardner on that gentleman's 90th birthday, John had no hesitation agreeing to do so. "I've got most of his books", he told me, "and it'll be fun to speak with him." They did speak, on the afternoon of Martin's birthday, for some 20 minutes. That's the kind of gentleman that Johnny Carson was.
John, I will miss you, as will so many millions here and around the world, but your legacy lives on. I've just run out of words.|"professional debunker" James Randi | medium=TV-Show | publisher=NBC | quotewidth=30px | quoteheight=30px